Renewing the National Commitment to the Interstate Highway System: A Foundation for the Future

We are looking forward to the American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA) Midyear Meetings. https://www.atssa.com/Events/Midyear-Meeting  They will be held next week (August 21 to 23) in San Diego. There will be many topics of interest including the joint working group with the Automotive Safety Council discussing automated vehicles and how their systems will communicate with work zones and a new Traffic Signals working group meeting to form a new division in ATSSA.

Not on the agenda, but sure to be another topic of conversation is a document recently published by the Transportation Research Board (TRB) titled, “Renewing the National Commitment to the Interstate Highway System: A Foundation for the Future (2019).” This report was requested by Congress to facilitate their discussions on the future of highway construction, maintenance and most importantly, funding.

Download a copy of the report HERE.

The report begins by looking at the history of the national highway system, then examines the needs for current and future maintenance and expansion and the funding problems of the trust fund. Finally, it offers a “Blueprint for Action” including these 10 recommendations:

  1. Congress should require a new program to rebuild and revitalize our existing highway system.
  2. They should work with states to “right size” the highway system, adding capacity where needed to meet developing demand.
  3. FHWA should work with states to assess the structural integrity of existing pavements and use that to decide when full reconstruction is more cost-effective than repaving.
  4. These improvements should be paid for by immediately raising the federal fuel tax to cover the federal share of the investment in renewal and modernization.
  5. Congress should allow states and local agencies to toll existing roadways as a way of helping them pay their share of these improvements.
  6. To avoid future funding shortfalls due to changes in technology, Congress should prepare to change from a per gallon fuel charge to a miles-driven or other user-based system.
  7. A new database of pavement conditions should be developed and combined with new modeling software to help make better decisions regarding the roads that should be improved.
  8. Begin preparing for connected and automated vehicles by learning what they will need in terms of roadway safety infrastructure including pavement markings signs, and temporary traffic control devices.
  9. With the goal of a more resilient highway system, assess the potential threats to our roadways from climate change and extreme weather and determine where improvements to our roads should be made.
  10. Recommend ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

As Congress works once again on a new highway bill, this document is sure to be a part of the discussion. Most of these 10 recommendations fit nicely with ATSSA’s efforts to improve roadway safety. Familiarize yourself with these recommendations and include them in your next conversation with your elected representatives!

Portable Traffic Signals as Work Zone ITS?

20160623_065843Today there are many definitions of work zone ITS. I’ve always felt that just because a device is controlled by electronics and some amount of internal software, does not qualify it as work zone ITS. Good examples are portable changeable message signs or portable traffic signals. In their simplest form they work independently and do not react to their environment.

But recently we started a project with portable signals that should qualify. Before the job bid we suggested portable signals as a cost-effective alternative to hardwired temporary signals mounted on posts and powered by a generator. The agency agreed but asked for most of the optional features mentioned on Horizon’s website. Those included wait time display, drive way assistance device, emergency vehicle preemption, and remote monitoring and notification.

Let’s look at each of these in a little more detail.

The wait time display is a changeable message sign attached to the articulating arm of the signals. When the signal at the other end of the work zone is green, the one facing stopped traffic tells it the maximum time they can expect to wait. Then, once the signal on the other end goes to red, it displays a countdown to green equal to the remaining clearing time.

This is a great feature when the work zone is especially long or when drivers on one end of the work zone cannot see the other end. Like travel time systems, once drivers know what the wait time is, they don’t seem to mind it as much. But not knowing often upsets them.

20160623_065949The driveway assistance device is another clever addition. The display consists of a red light and two flashing red arrows, one pointing right and the other left. When the light is red, drivers are expected to stay put. But when the right arrow is flashing, they can turn right when it is clear. The device ties into the signal phases on the main line. The system knows when traffic is moving to the right and tells the driveway assistance device to inform any drivers there that they may do so, too. It’s similar to a WAIT FOR PILOT CAR sign, but starts the moment traffic is cleared to go in that direction.

Emergency vehicle preemption is the same as most permanent signals use. It immediately turns the signal on the other end red, but still must give the same clearance time before turning to green for the ambulance or fire truck. Because these signals are farther apart, sometimes a half mile or more, the emergency responder must still sit there until traffic clears. Otherwise the potential for conflicts exists. This is one feature I would not recommend again, except when the signals are set up for a conventional intersection where clearing time is minimal. Or when there is an especially high volume of traffic that would otherwise extend the green time without preemption.

Remote monitoring is just what it sounds like. The signals report to a server over a wireless digital modem. All aspects of signal operation are monitored. If a lamp fails, or power drops, or communications between signals are lost; an alarm is sent to everyone concerned via text or email. Signal operations are also logged with each phase date & time stamped. So if a motorist claims they were green when they were actually red, the agency would be able to prove that.

Traffic engineers have taught drivers to expect traffic signals to do certain things. Portable signals can now do anything that permanent ones can do. That reinforces those lessons and makes our work zones safer.